It was 2:00 AM on 5th June. I had to catch the 5:45 AM flight from Bangalore to Mumbai. It was to be the biggest trip of my life and it was a long time coming. I had been dreaming of this for a good part of the last 10 years. In many ways this was a landmark day in my life - a proof of sorts that if you really want to achieve something, you can work towards it and make it happen.
I was sitting near the departure gate of my GoAir flight and I saw the massive Ulysse Nardin clocks showing times of different cities in the world - as a kid I used to wonder how it would feel to be in different parts of the world - in another time zone - it amazed me.
I dreamt of the day I would visit these places - New York, London, Dubai, Hong Kong. I had visited Dubai already, so I guess I was off the mark (in the cricketing sense of the phrase).
We left from home at 11:07 PM. We reached the Mumbai International Airport Terminal 2 and met the airport assistant of Kesari - the tour operator which had organized this trip.
They gave us our snacks package as well as universal adapters and other items which would come in handy during the trip. We were taking the 4:20 AM Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi. It had been one of my dreams to travel in a plane which had 10 rows of seats. And here it was - 10 rows of seats and an entertainment system. I tried to fiddle around with the system without much success. We reached Abu Dhabi at 5:40 AM local time.
The entertainment system even had the feed from a camera on which we could see the plane landing - it was amazing! I saw the runway in the distance in the middle of the desert and we slowly descended on to it.
As we got off the plane, I noticed the first class and business class sections in which each seat was designed like a private zone. I missed it the first time when we were getting in, because I was too excited. We had about 1 hour at the Abu Dhabi airport before our flight to Rome. The flight to Rome was similar to the one we had taken on the way here - a Boeing 777. When I checked out the route of the flight, I saw that it was taking the least risky airspace avoiding hostile areas in Iraq and Syria. The flight would go over the UAE, the Persian Gulf, the unforgiving terrain of Iran and Iraq, Turkey, over the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and across the Adriatic sea and finally into Italy.
The terrain itself showed how harsh the conditions were in Iran and Iraq - the visibility was amazing - we could see the entire landscape from 37000 feet with not a single cloud in sight. It was a complete desert littered with hills. At some places, there were huge depressions in the land and suddenly there would be rising peaks. Not many plants or animals could withstand these conditions. We also saw the great Tigris river winding its way through the landscape. I remembered reading about the Tigris and Euphrates which were the two great rivers that were the lifeline of Mesopotamia. We passed this area to enter a huge cloudy patch which marked Turkey and then the Black Sea. The next time the clouds cleared, we see the small dots that were ships on the Black Sea. Bulgaria was mostly green with thick forest cover. We were back over water - the Adriatic Sea and soon hit the Italian coastline.
As we hovered over Italy, I could see the beautiful landscape, the green country-side, the mountains with snow on their peaks (revealed by small gaps in the clouds) and the red roof cottages in the countryside. We covered the entire land mass of Italy in the course of minutes and landed at Fiumicino airport of Rome. My sister pulled me into the airport Book Store, La Feltrinelli (we saw a bigger store of the same in the city later) - it was fun to see popular books in their Italian version. Once our guide had located our bus at the parking, we made our way to board it. We got a very pleasant surprise - we had the best seats in the house! We were the first to book the trip and we got the first set of seats right up front! The trip would take us all across Europe through the major cities and landmarks over 12 days - and I'd get front seat view! I had not even imagined I'd get to see Europe like this.
We entered Rome through a gate in its outer walls.
We went to an Indian restaurant in the city for our lunch - Gourmindia's Ristorante Indiano on Via Labicana. After a lunch of Indian + Italian (pizza and pasta), we proceeded to the Trevi fountain. This was supposed to be a free day but I guess our guide felt we had enough time to cover one sightseeing point so that we could roam around more leisurely the next day. The city was amazing - I felt it was right out of the game, Midtown Madness. A small city, many junctions and signals, vehicles pausing at the stop signs and giving way to people crossing roads at zebra crossings. There were scooters everywhere - and they were huge! They had a wide front and most had huge windshields in the front. All of them had a big dicky/trunk which was mainly for the helmet. It was a beautiful place with a rich architectural heritage - obelisks at junctions, chapels and even the houses looked like from the grand old days.
But they were well maintained and none of them were old and tattered by the passage of time. Most of the roads were cobbled.
And the people were beautiful - one may argue that it is a concept of beauty fed to us by the media, but c'mon! These people were really good looking.
We walked down a lane towards the Trevi fountain and as we got there, the crowd swelled. When we got there, it was jam-packed with tourists from all over the world - mostly from China, India and America. Rome was a splendid tourist destination with many Hop On-Hop Off buses operating in the city. We clicked many pics and went to the chapel opposite the fountain. It was surprisingly calm and quiet inside given that it was in the middle of such chaos. We spent some time there and then went out to have Gelato from the nearby Trevi Café - strawberry, lemon, chocolate and Tiramisu. It was really amazing - the texture and the flavor was bang on (picked up those phrases from Masterchef Australia).
We were enjoying the gelato when we heard some music and stepped outside. I couldn't believe what I was seeing - there were people dancing to Hare Krishna Hare Rama! These were people from ISKCON - not a single Indian in their group though. A lot of the tourists joined in the dance as they sang and danced down the streets. It was time for us to leave and we walked back through a tunnel towards our bus. We saw the Tiber river (pic below) and the beautiful arching bridges over it.
It started raining gently and people were running all over to take cover at the tram stations and cafes. The trams looked as grand as metro trains! The rain was a big threat to our trip - the whole of France and Germany had floods following heavy downpour in the last two weeks. I'd done my background check and the forecast showed that the weather would clear over the next week - which meant that luck would play its part significantly. We headed to Holiday Inn on Via della Pisana. Every street looked straight out of a movie - so beautiful! And I'd heard that there were many more beautiful places in Europe. I could not even imagine what was coming up next!
We started after breakfast for exploring Rome. Here is a shot of our bus - it was from Prague.
Our first stop was the Colosseum. It looked as brilliant as it does in the pics.
We did not have time to go inside it but we took lots of pics from outside. Our guide explained the history of it along with that of the Victory Arch of Constantine which stands right next to the Colosseum.
The place was filled with tourists! It reminded of those pics of tourist places where they show a pic of what it looks like in a pic versus what it really looks like.
Our next stop was the Vatican. On the way, we saw the Circus Maximus. It was an ancient Roman chariot racing circuit - often pictured in movies like Ben Hur. As we got closer to the Vatican, we could see its tall walls.
We stopped near the entrance of the museum.
All the tourist groups were given earphones with radio receivers. I assumed it would be like what we see in Indian museums with audio guides at each exhibit. However, as I tuned to the channel specified by our guide, I could hear her speaking. I checked out the other channels and to my amusement, found that there were other guides around us speaking in Spanish, Italian and English. We entered the Musei Vaticani and after the security check, went straight to the garden in the middle. Our guide told us that she wasn't allowed to speak inside the Sistine Chapel and hence they had placed pics with the artwork in the garden so that she could explain them to us here. We were about to see some really famous paintings by Michelangelo. We stepped into the first hall which had sculptures - each depicting a story. There wasn't too much time to dwell on them as the crowd swept through and we had to keep walking.
The next hall had tapestries and once again, each said a story of its own. The one below depicts Jesus walking back from the dead - the holes in his palms are visible. Though this looks like a painting, it is a tapestry!
The ceilings had paintings on them as well. The next hall looked amazing! The ceilings glowed in yellow and gold with thousands of paintings.
The walls had paintings of Italian maps showing different points in the history of the country. We then walked towards the Sistine Chapel. There were signs saying that no one was supposed to speak inside the holy Chapel and photography was prohibited. We entered to behold the beautiful paintings inside - it was marvelous! As I looked up at the ceiling, I saw the legendary painting of God creating Adam. It looked flawless along with all the other paintings. We spent some time digesting the brilliance of the artwork in this hall. After this, we stepped out into the courtyard.
This place looked exactly like some part of the outside courtyards of Harry Potter with massive pillars, statues and everything. We walked on to realize that we had landed right in front of the biggest church in the world! It was enormous! We saw the balcony where the Pope would come out and address the crowd. The pillars were broader than any I've seen before. Our guide showed us the residence of the Pope which was a building right next to the Basilica. We then entered to find that this place was HUGE!
The architecture was Renaissance style with multiple bays and a huge central dome. Michelangelo's works couldn't be missed here as well with the Pieta - a marble sculpture of Mary holding her son Jesus after his crucifixion - right after the entrance.
The aisles were decorated with many sculptures and statues. We saw the tomb of Pope John Paul II. At the centre, there were four twisted bronze pillars above the altar and below the dome - it was called Bernini's baldacchino.
The central dome was beautiful - our guide told us that Michelangelo played a pivotal role here as well - we'd seen his brilliance as an artist, a sculptor and now as an architect. We saw openings in the floor which were air vents for the crypt below. One sculpture that quite stood out was the tomb of Pope Alexander which had an ornate entrance from the aisle and had a skeleton holding out an hour-glass to the kneeling Pope.
I could barely hear our guide on the earphone which meant she had moved out with the rest of the group - I rushed out to avoid being left behind.
We walked out past the statues of St.Peter (who almost always held a key in his hand) and St.Paul (who held a sword) to the fountain. An obelisk stood right in the middle of the courtyard with hieroglyphs running all around it.
It was an amazing view - I decided to click panoramas of this and all these amazing places we'd be visiting as they'd capture the entire experience rather than a normal photo. Oh and it was not just the people enjoying the fountain, this little duck was having a nice time too!
We then walked back to the bus terminal where our bus was waiting. We had a quick lunch at the same restaurant as the previous day and then proceeded to our next destination - Arezzo.
We took the main highway from Rome to Firenze (the place we know as Florence). It was a beautiful road - vehicles were cruising at 100-120kmph.
This was my first experience of the European highways. I was amazed by the discipline on the road which allowed vehicles to cruise smoothly. Almost all the vehicles had their headlights on even though the sun did not show any signs of setting any time soon. Apparently, there are laws in some countries to keep the lights on during the day as well as it significantly reduces the chances of collisions - especially because the vehicles are all driving at high speeds. There were hundreds of trucks on the road - all cruising on the right-most lane. I was having fun peeping in and checking what these guys were up to. First, they were not all guys - almost half of the truck drivers were women - something difficult to digest for a person from my part of the world. Most of them were on their mobile phones, some were reading books on the steering wheel, one had a coffee mug on his dashboard and one guy was just enjoying the ride. The country-side was beautiful - there were fields with cylindrical bales of hay rolled up.
Soon it started drizzling and suddenly it made sense that with such temperamental weather, it was better to make yourself as visible on the road as possible. We turned off the highway and entered a narrow road with just two lanes. It was amazing how such a huge 8-wheeler bus was navigating with such precision on such a narrow road with sharp turns!
We passed through some small towns and villages with beautiful little houses with tiled roofs. Soon, we reached our hotel a little outside Arezzo, Hotel Planet.
We had dinner and stepped outside for some time to enjoy the country-side. It got dark around 8:45 pm after which we went back to our rooms.
I checked out the TV to see what channels were on. It was all Italian - channels called Rai 1, Rai 2 etc. No hope there. So we decided to call it a day! Next up, in part 2 - Pisa and Maranello - the home of Ferrari!
This blog was originally published on 'AMen'